Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 23, No. 1 September 2002

What Constitutes Quality Academic Library Space?

by William Miller

Despite the “Library is Dead” movement, something which The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps trying to push with sensationally titled articles such as the recent “Do Libraries Really Need Books?”1 which plays to the wishful thinking of futurists and those who want very desperately to save money on instructional support services, the reality is that institutions continue to expand their existing libraries, build new ones, and stock them with books and other traditional materials, in addition to providing a plethora of electronic resources.

These new library spaces, however, are differing in some marked ways from their predecessors. No longer can we just build a box, throw in some shelves and seating, and call it acceptable. At the start of the new century, we need to rethink what constitutes quality academic library space. While there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to the question of what constitutes quality space for academic libraries today, and while reasonable people may differ on the particulars, the broad outlines are clear enough.

Administrators need to consider numerous categories of concern. The two most obvious are

Equally important are such issues as

Library building planners need to decide whether to expand existing facilities incrementally, or in effect build a new, highly digitized “front end” to the library and relegate the existing facility primarily to storage and study space, a decision that could make sense where renovation is not practical. Academic administrators also need to balance architects’ profound need to create libraries as grand, sweeping spaces with high ceilings and massive central staircases, and the campus’s need for practical and affordable space, which nevertheless should be attractive as well as functional.

Materials Storage

Make no mistake about it: the world of computers and digitization should affect library building planning in profound ways, and campuses would be foolish to ignore that in any new construction or renovation. By the same token, however, do not make the mistake of deciding that traditional materials are no longer important. While it is true that students will always gravitate towards the easiest way, which right now is a quick and cursory Google search, rather than the right way, a thorough attempt to find the best information that exists on a subject, this is an instructional challenge, not a statement that the book is dead. There is still much that can only be found in printed materials, and academic libraries will continue to need ample provision for books and other tangible forms of information such as microforms, maps, and audiovisual materials, in addition to providing online access to information, now and into the future.

Printed materials: books. Last year, there were 114,487 books published in the US,2 and more than half of those would be of interest to academic libraries. For larger libraries with a need for foreign publications, the challenge is magnified, with upwards of 50,000 books being published each year in each of the major Western European countries, and surprisingly large numbers in other nations (e.g., Brazil in the year 2000–more than 45,000 books). Very few of these books are available electronically, and virtually none of them will ever be made available electronically retroactively.

Academic libraries must reckon with the reality that printed materials will continue to be created and be important for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, even if every book published from now on were suddenly and magically to be published electronically, academic libraries, in addition to needing a massive increase in their hardware and infrastructure to afford access to this quantum leap in electronic information, would still need to continue acquiring retrospective printed materials to support their institutions’ academic programs.

Printed books, in many cases, are the only source of information on a topic, or still the best way of packaging information, even about the most modern of subjects. I recently coedited a book entitled Academic Research on the Internet: Options for Scholars and Libraries, about which one reviewer commented: “It is ironic that the most thorough and systematic treatment of the utility of the World Wide Web for scholarly research is found in a book.”3

Journals. The situation with journals is evolving towards electronic access at a faster rate than with the book, but many journals are still not digital, and libraries continue to take most digital journals in paper also, in part because there are no guarantees of continuing online access to back years. Moreover, publishers are now increasingly removing titles from the aggregate databases (like EBSCO and Proquest) which libraries have come to depend on, or are providing only stripped-down text of articles while omitting illustrations, letters to the editor, editorials, etc. Journals in digitized form are typically not available prior to the early or mid-1990s, or later.

The same is true for US Government documents and other governmental and quasi-governmental publications, both US and foreign. Therefore, though it might shock students to learn this, the fact is that most real information of an academic, scholarly nature is available only in printed or tangible form, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

What constitutes quality storage of printed material? There is a yin and yang to this question. To achieve the ideal of fast, open, browsable access, libraries need extensive amounts of traditional shelving with 4-foot aisles. However, such storage takes up valuable and expensive space that may be needed for other purposes. Compact shelving on tracks, in which the ranges are moved electronically or manually, used to be considered unacceptable for public access, but is increasingly seen as an acceptable compromise within library buildings because it still provides substantially all the access that regular shelving does (though at a higher initial cost), while greatly increasing the density and capacity of the library’s shelving, and freeing up space for other user needs.

Some institutions, such as Eastern Michigan University, have gone to “back room” mobile storage arrangements, which are still within the building but are not directly accessible to users; these systems sacrifice physical browsing capacity and serendipity in exchange for the greater densities that can be achieved when books are shelved by size in compact arrangements that can be accessed mechanically. Still other libraries, especially the largest research libraries, have opted for off-site storage facilities for lesser-used materials, which sacrifice both physical browsing and speed of access for offsetting benefits in terms of storage cost, security, and climate control, not to mention the forestalling of the construction of additional expensive library space. There is no single solution to materials storage that best suits every library, but all need to reckon with a continuing need to maintain the most convenient access possible to their traditional materials. One acceptable compromise is to maintain newer items and those items which have circulated in recent times within the central library, while relegating older, more abstruse, and lesser-used items to remote storage.

Other Physical Formats

The information revolution has made non-book materials more useful, but also more space-intensive and equipment-dependent. Flat map cases may now need to be supplemented with GIS workstations; audiovisual collections require CD players and computer workstations that allow for multi-media manipulation; microform rooms now require readers that can digitize the microforms, and transmit them to users’ home or office workstations. Broadsides and realia, which were formerly locked away in back rooms, may now be beautifully displayed, in expensive cases with special lighting and climate controls. The world of information access continually improves, but such improvements come with a cost in terms of both space and equipment.

Special Collections and Display Space

Special Collections establish the distinctiveness of an academic library’s collections, and display areas give the library an opportunity to showcase its materials and provide public programming. As fundraising becomes more and more important, so do special collections, which appeal to donors in a way that the general library collection will rarely do. The train enthusiast will enthusiastically support the collection of train books, even though he or she may not give a hoot about anything else. Such materials require special care, however. Even more than with the general collections, special collections require excellent climate controls and strict preservation measures, as well as security measures. Academic libraries, collectively, are preserving and in many cases digitizing the nation’s intellectual and cultural heritage, and libraries are paying increasing attention to the special needs of storing, displaying, and making these collections available for both current and future use.

Student Space

In the same way that dormitories have now become “residence halls,” places where students live rather than being simply warehoused, libraries are now being designed to be living spaces for students, not simply places where storage of things is the primary purpose, and people are secondary. Institutions need to capitalize on their libraries as key resources in the quality of student life.

It has long been recognized that many students, including ones who may make little use of the research materials in a library, nevertheless prefer to study in libraries over any other place on campus. This study function, which is in part a social phenomenon and in part a recognition of the library’s tacit status as a quasi-religious center of intellectual life, should not be neglected. Comfortable furnishings and the amenities mentioned below will increase student satisfaction and maximize the quality of their time in the library.

Undergraduate Predilections

Some students need privacy and individual study spaces, but students increasingly want to study or work in groups, and increasingly, faculty are requiring such group work. This phenomenon must be planned into new facilities in the form of special spaces wired for online access and equipped with items like erasable boards and smartboards that facilitate group work.

Other students like to eat and drink while reading and working. Old taboos against food and drink in libraries have rapidly given way to the creation of coffee and food areas in libraries, though such areas should be kept separate from the printed materials.

Many students want to keep late hours, and new facilities need to incorporate late-night, or all-night areas that can be kept open without extensive staffing requirements.

Students also appreciate “play space”—a TV lounge, game room, or other area which might be deemed a frivolous use of expensive space, but is greatly appreciated by those needing a break after an extended period of concentrated work.

Graduate Student and Faculty Space

Graduate students and faculty share many of the needs of undergraduates, but they have a greater need for private space for the temporary storage of extensive research materials, and for reflection and uninterrupted work. They also need secure space for personal computer equipment and for sensitive materials, and online access to the library’s electronic resources at their workspaces, along with access to the printed materials. These needs may be filled through the use of lockers in a bullpen area, or by a multiplicity of smaller separate lockable rooms.

Staff Space

Administrators must recognize that staff salaries typically constitute at least half of total library expenditures. Therefore, it makes good sense to maximize staff efforts by accommodating their needs for ergonomically comfortable workstations, staff lounges, and meeting spaces that facilitate group interactions. Staff normally spend more time in libraries than other categories of users, and it is especially important to afford them natural light, excellent temperature controls, and other factors that contribute to their mental and physical well being.

Staff are now major consumers of computing space. Libraries now typically need at least one large workroom and storage area (and probably more) for equipment being received, set up, fixed, or surplused. They also need storage space for the associated cables, monitors, and other hardware and software that are continually flowing through the operation. Beyond the IT operation itself, almost every staff workstation of the library must be wired and equipped for both the traditional activities such as cataloging and the newer ones such as digitizing, creating web pages, or electronic publishing.

Instructional Space

One important area of any academic library encompasses both staff and user space categories; this is the instructional space that every academic library desperately needs to actuate the potential of the collections, both physical and virtual. Well-wired, spacious classrooms within the library are critical. Staff must be equipped with the tools to instruct all categories of user in how to get the most from the electronic and traditional materials which have been the focus of so much expense and processing, only to go unused in large part if people are not taught how to find what they need when they need it.

Online Access

When people think about planning new library space today, the first thing that typically comes to mind is the need for greater electronic access. Online access in libraries is now essential for almost every activity—searching the catalog, searching the Internet, using electronic full-text materials the library has digitized or purchased, and interacting with colleagues. Academic libraries typically pay for access to proprietary data only for their own students and faculty, and some vendors restrict access to this information to the library itself; others allow access from off-campus, but many students still lack the hardware and resources to access library data outside of the building.

Students also have a maddening tendency to see computers with Internet access as convenient tools for personal e-mail, downloading of music, gaming, and other non-library uses, which are difficult to control and perhaps counterproductive to try to prevent. Moreover, computers are essential for many other things that students now do on campus, such as registering for courses and paying for them. Thus there is in an ever-growing need for machine and Internet access within academic libraries, and a permanent need for maintenance and upgrading of hardware and infrastructure, as well as a significant commitment to the space necessary to house the resources.

Distributing Access

The notion of student “labs,” or centralized areas, still has some value, especially in group instructional settings, but increasingly, computing access should be distributed and widely available in library buildings. We must move from the notion of computing as a specialized, segregated function to a realization that computers are now integral to almost everything we do in libraries. The Internet workstations of today are like the chairs and desks and notepads of yesterday, in many ways, though we still need the chairs and desks and notepads also. We still have no good sense of how ubiquitous and integrated online access will be in years to come, but there is every reason to think that it will revolutionize many aspects of library use.

One library building designer has suggested shelving end panels with touch screens that not only feature books in that range of shelves, rather like the shelf-end displays in supermarkets, but also offer reviews and other information about this and similar items on the shelves.4 Mobile computing is obviously very much on the horizon. The most sensible thing at this point is to wire (or enable wireless access) as widely as possible, and plan user spaces as flexibly as possible, so that we may respond to unknown changes that are sure to come. Too many library buildings are still being planned with one electrical plug per wall, limited wiring and data access, and no wireless hubs in the building, as though online access and laptops were not yet a reality.

Flexibility: the Watchword

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Johnson’s Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin in the 1930s, he installed 3 separate conduit systems: one for telephone, one for electricity, and one for some future new, unknown thing which would eventually come along. This visionary idea was of course ridiculed; what else could ever possibly come along that would need conduit? Now we know. The lesson here is not that we should now install 4 conduits, since we already know what the first 3 will contain; the lesson is that we do not know how things will change, but we know for sure that they will change, so that flexibility in building design for academic libraries should be our watchword.

Flexibility may extend also to how we conceptualize what academic library space is, and how it could articulate with other needs on campus. For instance, space could be shared with IT departments or with other areas within the institution. Alternatively, as is already happening with increasing frequency, academic libraries can partner with community college libraries, school libraries, and even public libraries to offer joint facilities which maximize resources and provide each partner with more than it would otherwise have been able to provide on its own. For example:

Building shared facilities would not be appropriate for every institution, and it brings its share of problems—everything from parking to dealing with under-aged users not legally liable to return the books they have borrowed—but it could help some institutions realize their public service missions and create more quality library space than the institution could otherwise have afforded.

Ultimately, however, regardless of the ways in which space is conceptualized and funded, academic institutions must find ways to provide the kinds of quality library space described here in order to fulfill their obligations to students and faculty. —William Miller <>


1Scott Carlson, “Do Libraries Really Need Books?: Controversial Projects at Some Colleges Move the Printed Word Out of Sight.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 12, 2002): A31.

2The Bowker Annual. 47th ed. Ed. Dave Bogart. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2002.

3Rush G. Miller, Book jacket blurb for Academic Research on the Internet: Options for Scholars and Libraries, Ed. Helen Laurence and William Miller. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 2000.

4Nolan Lushington, Libraries Designed for Users: a 21st Century Guide. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2002.

North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

Officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill celebrated the opening of a fully renovated and updated undergraduate library on August 19. The Robert B. House Undergraduate Library, closed for interior renovations for more than a year, reopened as a 24-hour facility complete with wireless Internet connection, new facilities for group study, and advanced web-related software. The renovated space gives the library the capability to integrate services, print and electronic documents, and group and individual study.  Joe Hewitt, associate provost for university libraries told reporters “It's designed to serve the diverse needs students have for information today.” 

The completely redesigned floor plan includes a reserve reading room, nine group study rooms, a new Media Resources Center, film and video screening rooms for classes of up to 45 students, a computer lab with about 65 computers, and more than 100 public computer stations. Wired and wireless connections to the Internet have been installed throughout the building, and new equipment and software will offer advanced services to students working on web pages and other digital applications. A new heating and ventilation system, and new furniture and carpeting complete the renovations.  The House library opened in 1968, but after 32 years of technological innovation and the wear and tear of serving more than a million patrons annually, the $10 million renovation became necessary.

Based on report in the "Library Journal Academic Newswire." August 6, 2002



Brooklyn College October 17 officially opened its new 277,000 square foot library, the largest in the City University of New York system. The $72 million project, designed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, integrates the original 1937 Georgian building, a 1959 addition, and a new wing. The library, like many state-of- the art libraries being built on campuses across the country, reflects the latest trend in academic libraries, situating the campus library as the school’ s technological hub: data flows into the library building, then out to the rest of the college. The new library houses both physical and digital collections; the college archives, a new media center, and both academic computing and administrative computing.

Technology is woven throughout the entire structure, with over 40 percent of the building’s 2300 seats are equipped with net connections, and the building opened with 500 computers. The library also has a digital multimedia distribution system, teleconferencing, satellite connectivity, and wireless networking. And yes, the library does house books, over 800,000 volumes. But reflecting the changing nature of library collections--electronic versus paper publications, growth estimates for print is conservative. Most subject areas have room for only ten to 15 years of acquisitions. At the same time, the building provides state-of-the-art environmental controls for the print collection, and significant space for the archives. While the library’s technology is impressive, Brooklyn officials also stress that the building itself reaffirms the role of library as place through a wide array of environments, from a formal “great hall” to intimate study areas. “We recognize that students are whole people, and should have a variety of environments to support different learning styles,” said chief librarian Barbara Higginbotham.

from Library Journal Academic News Wire: October 31, 2002


Another article

The College Library in the New Age by Jeff Morris

Mountainside Publishing, Inc.

Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 23, no. 1. © 2002 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at <>



last modified: November 2002


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